Aggressive behaviour

Grossemy

In ethology – the science of animal behaviour – aggression is defined as “a physical act or threatening action towards another individual that limits its very freedom and genetic potential”. Several types of aggressive behaviour can be distinguished: predatory aggression, hierarchical aggression, frustration aggression, territorial and maternal aggression, and fear aggression. Leaving aside predatory and fear aggression for now, we need to examine the entire behavioural sequence, which is split into three phases.

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The three phases

The first is the threat or intimidation phase, characterised by growling, raised hackles, erect tail and ears and bared teeth. The second is the attack phase, when the dog charges, attempting to grab its adversary around the neck, chest or front limbs and pin it down until it adopts a submissive posture. The third is the appeasement phase, when the victor bites the loser on the top of the head, places a paw on its withers or straddles it.

The form of attack varies depending on the hierarchical relationship between the two dogs. If the attacker is dominant the bite will be a quick one and will be followed by another intimidation phase. But if the attacker is a competitor, it will hold the bite until the other dog submits. The full sequence is termed reactive aggression. If the intimidation and appeasement phase is missed out, the correct term is instrumentalised aggression or secondary hyper-aggression.

© Diffomedia/Royal Canin

Predatory aggression

Predatory aggression is generally triggered by hunger. The dog pounces on its prey with its limbs together, tail and ears erect and hackles raised. It comes down on the prey with its front limbs, clamping it in its jaws and shaking it vigorously to break its spine. Predatory aggression has also been observed in satiated dogs, including dogs killing hens in a farmyard. This is physiological behaviour that cannot be effectively inhibited.

There are occasional reports of predatory aggression against people by packs of feral dogs, which identify humans as prey because they have never been socialised in a human environment. Companion dogs may also sporadically exhibit this behaviour towards infants not yet able to walk if they have not encountered infants of this type before.

Hierarchical aggression

Labat_Rouquette

Hierarchical aggression has been observed against both dogs and humans. It is triggered when the dog feels that it is being challenged by a subordinate. A dominant animal protects the cohesion of the social group by inhibiting aggression by other members of the pack. The dominant animal eats first, at its leisure, preferably while the other animals are watching. It controls the occupation of the territory and how other members of the pack move around this territory. As a consequence, it often occupies a strategic position, enabling it to survey its entire territory. It controls reproduction, managing sexual activity in the pack. A dominant dog can copulate in full view of the other members of the pack. In the human equivalent of the pack – like a family – the presence of an owner of the same sex may be an exacerbating circumstance. Subordinate dogs are not allowed to copulate in front of dominant dogs or, by extension, a dominant owner, so they will be inhibited in the presence of an owner of the same sex, which means that dominant owners should not be around when their dog is mated. Dominant dogs straddle their subordinates of the same sex – in fact they can even exhibit this behaviour with cushions and pillars – in front of everybody. Straddling has nothing to do with homosexuality, it is an act of dominance. If the dog’s dominance is challenged this may trigger hierarchical aggression against dogs or humans characterised by the typical behavioural sequence (intimidation, attack, appeasement).

The appeasement phase is the same when the adversary is a human. Sometimes the dog may lick a limb it has bitten when the human presents it, which leads the human to wrongly suppose that the dog is somehow expressing contrition.

Frustration aggression is triggered by a feeling of discontentment caused by hunger, pain or prolonged physical contact initiated by a subordinate (such as an owner stroking or brushing a dog). Territorial aggression is triggered by any intrusion into the pack’s territory or personal space. Maternal aggression is triggered only in the presence of puppies, although the immediate cause may be as simple as a toy or slipper.

© Diffomedia/Royal Canin
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The appeasement phase is the same when the adversary is a human. Sometimes the dog may lick a limb it has bitten when the human presents it, which leads the human to wrongly suppose that the dog is somehow expressing contrition.

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Fear aggression

© Diffomedia/Royal Canin

Fear aggression occurs where the dog is trapped and unable to escape. It can be expressed towards humans or other dogs. There is no intimidation phase, the attack comes immediately, without warning, causing violent injury as the dog does not control its bite in any way.

The lack of the intimidation or appeasement phase may also be due to effective conditioning. We have already seen how dogs become aggressive when their dominance is challenged. In the case of fear aggression, initially, all three phases of the aggression sequence are completed, but if conflict situations continue to occur without the balance of the relationship changing in any way, the dog will gradually fine-tune this sequence. So if the dog bites someone who then runs away, this will reinforce the development of effective conditioning. The appeasement phase diminishes and ultimately disappears, while the intimidation phase merges with the attack phase, eventually disappearing too. The result will be a serious bite without warning. By this time, the dog has become a dangerous animal.

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